The Poets’ Niche

By Mark Sconce

scribe color largeAnonymous (2200 B.C.—Present)

This month’s column will exhume a body of poetry from the Tomb of the Unknown Poet.   He’s written more lines than any other poet. His story begins over 4,000 years ago on the eve of the Bronze Age and the dawning of the Iron Age.  He was probably sitting with the royal family around a palace fireplace asking his father what his father was like and his and his.  Recounting their heroic deeds and honorable lineages grew tougher after a few dozen generations, so professional storytellers and poets took up the cause, keepers of the memories of their folk.

Since rhymed and metered language is easier to learn than linear language, poetry began to take form, and it would be many, many centuries before prose took its place. Although these poems from antiquity are a little hard to fathom, we can be assured that poet Anonymous was searching for the truth of love, life and living.

Psalm 137 (c. 530 B.C.)


By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept:  When we remembered thee, O Zion. 

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem:  Let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth:  Yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.   Tr. by Miles Coverdale


But listen now to a poem some fifteen hundred years older, washed up on the shores of Sumerian antiquity. From Tablet VII  of The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Then Shamash spoke and said to Enkidu:  “Why do you curse the temple prostitute?

Because of her you eat the food and drink the palace affords.  Because of her you wear

The garments suitable for a prince to wear; You sit in the place of honor nearest the king;

The great ones of the earth bow down before you. Gilgamesh is your friend and your companion.

Tr. by David Ferry


Anonymity happens in various ways!  Court poets, for example, like court jesters, were there to please royalty, not to promote their own names.  The idea of intellectual property would have earned snorts of derision down royal hallways. Here’s some practical advice from an opinionated poet.


Vietnamese ( 16th century)

Good scholars make bad husbands.  Girls, don’t marry students!

Their long backs require great swaths of cloth. Well fed, they rest their lazy bones.

In freezing winter weather, while you transplant rice for thirty-six coppers,

They read books by the fire, waiting to eat your earnings.    Tr. by Nguyen Ngoc Bich


We owe a debt to those intrepid, determined, and very clever translators who bring us poetic news from the distant past. Pushkin once wrote that translators are “the post horses of civilization.” But one of my particularly persnickety readers (whose name shall remain anonymous) chides me for using translations claiming that “…it is almost impossible to translate poetry from one language to another” and would therefore have me not use translations. She sides with Robert Frost’s famously dismissive remark that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” She would do better to ponder Octavio Paz’s rejoinder:  “Poetry is what gets translated.”

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